Academic journal article Care Management Journals

Myths and Realities of Aging

Academic journal article Care Management Journals

Myths and Realities of Aging

Article excerpt

As the aging population expands, it will become increasingly important for health care providers to become aware of and sensitive to the needs and concerns of older adults. Ageism is a term that describes negative stereotyping of older adults and discrimination because of older age. Health concerns and symptoms in the elderly may be overlooked or dismissed as part of the normal aging process. Consequently, several conditions in olders adults are significantly underdiagnosed and undertreated. Misconceptions about aging frequently encountered in medicine and in society at large include issues involving sexuality, sleep disturbance, depression, cognitive impairment, and substance abuse. We can learn to recognize ageist notions that influence medical practice. Perhaps by becoming more aware of myths and realities of aging, we can improve the health and quality of life of our elderly patients.

Keywords: elderly; aging; ageism; sexuality; depression

Those 65 and older represent the fastest-growing segment of the population in the United States. Although people over the age of 65 make up only about 13% of the American population today, it is projected that over 20% will be age 65 or older by year 2030. The total population of Americans over the age of 65 will have then doubled to more than 70 million (Alliance for Aging Research, 2003). This major demographic shift will have significant implications for society and the health care system.

Dr. Robert Butler, who later became the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term "ageism" in 1969 to describe negative stereotyping of older adults and discrimination because of older age (Alliance for Aging Research, 2003). Multiple studies suggest that age bias is prevalent among health care professionals and may influence medical practice (Alliance for Aging Research, 2003; Calamidas, 1997; Gunderson, Tomkowiak, Menachemi, & Brooks, 2005; Uncapher & Arean, 2000). Health concerns and symptoms in the elderly may be overlooked or dismissed as part of the normal aging process. Consequently, several conditions in older adults are significantly underdiagnosed and undertreated. Many older adults are already conditioned to accept declines in health, function, and cognition as inevitable as they age (Gunderson et al., 2005). Health care providers may perpetuate a fatalistic understanding of frailty and illness with advancing age in older persons. Furthermore, providers have been shown to neglect important aspects of health in older individuals because of stereotypical assumptions about their risks and behaviors (Alliance for Aging Research, 2003; Calamidas, 1997). Finally, health care providers may lack knowledge or awareness of physiologic changes associated with aging that are particularly relevant in regard to the prescription of inappropriate medications in the elderly (Alliance for Aging Research, 2003).

As the aging population expands, it will become increasingly important for health care providers to become aware of and sensitive to the concerns and needs of older individuals. This article addresses some truths and misconceptions about aging frequently encountered in the primary care setting, including issues involving sexuality, sleep disorders, depression, cognitive impairment, and substance abuse.

1. MYTH OR REALITY? OLDER PEOPLE DON'T HAVE SEXUAL INTERESTS

Sexuality remains a fundamental aspect of life and does not necessarily abate with age (Lenahan & Elwood, 2004). Prevalent misconceptions about sexuality and the elderly include that older people are unable to perform sexually because of physical changes related to aging, that older adults are not interested in sex, or that those who do express an interest are demented or perverted. Further, elders and health care providers alike may erroneously assume that sexually transmitted infections, including human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency disorder (HIV/ AIDS), are not common in this population (Alliance for Aging Research, 2003; Calamidas, 1997). …

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